Some comments carry more weight than others – such as comments from Gov. Jerry Brown.
The State Water Resources Control Board unveiled its plan to take 30 to 50 percent of the Merced, Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers late last week. After taking four years to compile the 2,000-page report, the water board gave the people of the Northern San Joaquin Valley 60 days to digest it and make objections. Objections to the board grossly understating the economic impact of fallowing at least 100,000 acres; ignoring what is really killing salmon; forcing farmers into reliance on regulated groundwater; demanding more water with no clear objectives or assurances it will work.
Still, it was unexpected that Gov. Brown would be among the first to comment. But he did more than just “comment.”
In a letter dated Sept. 19, the governor directed the Natural Resources Agency to “explore the potential for a comprehensive agreement on environmental flows in both the San Joaquin and Sacramento River basins.” He stressed, twice, that flows objectives should be reached through “voluntary agreements” with water districts.
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The governor’s letter recognized that our communities – from Merced to Manteca – are “paralyzed and fearful” following release of the water board’s Substitute Environmental Document. He said the state should be looking for a “faster, less contentious, and more durable outcome.”
Clearly, delays worry him. “The governor started to realize that the regulatory approach was headed down, in all likelihood, a very lengthy series of litigations and that would hold things in limbo for too long,” said Karla Nemeth, deputy secretary for water policy at the Natural Resources Agency.
Unlike the board, the governor wants agencies to consider more than just flow – a positive sign.
“The governor didn’t seem to be putting an emphasis on flow, but on a comprehensive solution – which is what we were trying to do all along,” said Modesto Irrigation District board member Jake Wenger.
“I hope (his letter) is an admission that the state water board has dealt us an unfair hand,” said Turlock Irrigation District board member Michael Frantz. “Hopefully, he’s sending a message that California’s water problems can’t be solved in a courtroom. They need to be addressed in a comprehensive way.”
Water board chair Felicia Marcus was optimistic, too.
“We welcome and share the governor’s desire to move forward with important discussions and decisions on environmental flows for the Bay-Delta as a whole. We’re glad to be asked to move more quickly on this comprehensive effort and are already working on ways to do so. We also very much appreciate the governor’s direction to our sister agencies to help pursue voluntary agreements and value their help.”
Brown asked the Natural Resources Agency to respond by October, but Nemeth said that doesn’t mean the water board’s 60-day clock has stopped ticking. The region’s water districts – Merced, Turlock, Modesto, Oakdale and South San Joaquin – must continue parsing the SED and preparing detailed responses.
Our region’s efforts must not stop. We must be prepared to speak with one, determined voice in the crucial months ahead.